March 1st, 2015

Veterans’ suicide prevention bill supported

Losing one veteran to suicide is one veteran too many, says Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner Joseph Perkins.

“If a veteran takes his one life one time, to me that is a big issue,” he said. “To say that 22 people a day, which means that across this country, 8,000 veterans are taking their lives a year, that’s out of control. That’s not acceptable.”

Perkins is referencing a figure which has been used by lawmakers – including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) – urging support of federal legislation that addresses this issue, called the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

Blumenthal had this to say about the bill after it passed unanimously in the Senate in February: “This breakthrough bipartisan step will help countless veterans overcome invisible wounds of war that lead to 22 tragic suicides every day.” The bill also found unanimous support in the House.

In published reports, it’s acknowledged that the 22-a-day statistic does not provide much context and does not include information from all 50 states. A range of 18-22 veteran suicides a day is more consistent with prior studies.

Suicide is high for the regular population as well. It’s the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control report.

However, a new study published in Annals of Epidemiology in February suggests the suicide rate for veterans is 41-61 percent higher than the general U.S. population.

The study also found that veterans are at a higher suicide risk in the three years after leaving military service. However, deployment to the war zone itself did not contribute to excess suicides in veterans, according to the study. Risk factors associated with suicide were similar between male and female veterans, but the suicide risk was high among younger, male, white and unmarried veterans, the study found.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act – named for a Texas veteran who took his life in 2011 at age 28 – was signed by President Obama on Feb. 12. It requires a third-party be hired to evaluate Veterans Administration mental health care and suicide prevention programs and propose best practices for care of veterans dealing with mental health issues or who are at risk of suicide.

Perkins said the best part of the legislation is the third-party review of available programs, which will help “get away from just using the standard program and giving them the regular pills they give them and sending them on their way,” he said.

The bill also requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to publish a Web site that provides mental health care resources for veterans and establish a pilot program that will assist veterans transitioning from service to civilian life. The bill also creates a loan repayment pilot program for VA psychiatrists.

“We owe these wounded warriors more effective mental health care, so they can win the war against inner demons that come home from service,” said Blumenthal in a news release after the bill passed the Senate in February. “This bill will help save lives – courageous, strong veterans who need and deserve enhanced psychiatric care, counseling, outreach support and accountability from the Veterans Administration.”

Connecticut has a veterans information line for any veteran needing help, Perkins said, which can be reached at 1-866-928-8387. The state also offers a free and confidential counseling and crisis line for military members and families, he said. Called the Military Support Program, it can be reached at 1-866-251-2913.

The Veterans Crisis Line, a toll-free confidential crisis line, is available all day every day to any veteran or family member online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by phone at 1-800-273-8255, and pressing 1.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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